What do Bay St bankers and St. Lawrence residents have in common? Both seemingly enjoy spending time in Berczy Park. On weekdays, minutes after the clock hits noon, a herd of office workers and their plastic food containers flock to the place. They typically sit around the elegant central fountain, fork in one hand, food on their lap and smartphone by their side. But lunch is just one of many activities taking place in the park. The spot is also popular for book reading, lazying on the grass, dog walking and selfie taking. How did exactly this small triangular lot, tucked between the 1881 Gooderham Building and the looming towers of the Financial District, come to be and who is this Berczy person?
William von Moll Berczy (Johann Albrecht Ulrich Moll at the time of his birth) was born in 1744 in Wallerstein, Germany, the son of a diplomat and reportedly a childhood friend of Mozart. He spent his youth travelling throughout Europe, often earning a living by painting. In 1792, he set sails for the Americas bringing with him a group of Germain peasants. His final destination? Genesee County in New York State where the group members had been promised free land to establish themselves. Unfortunately, the arrangement failed and Berczy was forced back on the road. He proceeded to Newark (Niagare-on-the-Lake), Upper Canada (Ontario) where he met with Lieutenant Governor Simcoe. Simcoe was eager to populate his new provincial capital, York (Toronto), and agreed to gift him and his entourage 64,000 acres just outside the town. The deal was sealed and in 1794, the 64 German families settled in Markham Township, putting an end to a two-year journey.
In York, Berczy proved extremely useful. He and his Markham community built a large stretch of Yonge St. Further, as an engineer and an architect by trade, he participated in the construction of the original St. James Church and in 1802 built the first bridge over the Don River. Other notable accomplishments include paintings (including a portrait of Simcoe himself), his role as first Commander of the York District Militia and written work. In poor health, he succumbed in 1813 in the USA while on his way to London. In the British capital, he had planned to challenge the rescinding of land grants and plead for financial assistance for his community and a manuscript he had started on the early history of Upper Canada. In an odd turn of events, his coffin was filled with rocks and the book never to be seen again. Some of Bercy’s paintings are on display at the AGO in Toronto and at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
Berczy Park was dedicated in 1974 to pay tribute not only to William Berczy, co-founder of Toronto, but also to his two sons. Both vasty contributed to the city’s history occupying first-rate positions amongst which District Court Judge, member of the Assembly of Upper Canada, Postmaster, President of the Consumers’ Gas Company, bank director and director of the stock exchange.
Much like William Berczy’s own life, the story of the park that bears his name is a tumultuous one. During Toronto’s first decades, Front St, in large part as a result of its location immediately north of the lake and later of the railroads, was the town’s commercial and industrial centre. Warehouses, shops and factories, small in size, sometimes housing residents in the upper floors, made up most of the area’s fabric. Over time, however, the lake was filled in, shopping activity shifted north and to top it all off, the railway station (initially at Yonge and Front St) moved westward and with it a viaduct was erected severing the buildings’ accesses to the train tracks. The neighbourhood’s location and building configuration turned into handicaps rather than assets; transportation connections no longer existed and the small aging Front St buildings lacked the space that modern and mechanized industries required. It ensued that by the 1950’s many constructions had been left to rot or levelled and converted into parking lots.
In the second half of the 20th century, the city turned its attention to the neighbourhood and reimagined it as a theatre district. The O’Keefe Centre (Sony Centre) opened in 1960 and the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts ten years later. Berczy Park, a full part of this rejuvenation exercise, was built on a former parking lot steps across the street. When it welcomed its first guests in December of 1974, it really didn’t look like much: a flat lawn with roadside benches; not a tree in sight. Featureless Berczy’s life was cut short in 1979 when the city went back to the drawing board and announced a slew of improvements. Between 1980 and 1981, it commissioned the Flatiron Mural by Calgary artist Derek Besan on the Gooderham Building’s western wall, planted the park, added Victorian lanterns, pathways and retaining walls for people to sit on. The mural, the size of a double tennis court, represents a building facade, in a trompe-l’oeil fashion, which colour scheme and architectural style closely match those of the Flatiron Building on which it is affixed. Of the 16 windows that can be spotted in the mural, a mere four are factual. In 1982, a 4-foot statue by Oakville artist Almuth Leutkenhaus of William Berczy, his wife and two sons, was installed at the park’s southeast corner, ending a 3-year debate at City Hall around whether or not the artwork did justice to such a brilliant historical character. The plan’s last piece, a central circular brick fountain, made its debut in 1985.
The park took on its current appearance in the summer of 2017 after two years of re-construction. In designer Claude Cormier + Associés’ words, the new space can be summed up as “a plaza with a large fountain and detailed granite paving motif, an activity green space for passive activities, and a perennial garden next to the historic Flatiron Building with its iconic mural”. The fountain, that’s precisely what people come in droves to see. The two-tiered Victorian structure is mounted with no less than 27 dogs and one cat and its pinnacle with the object of their desire: an oversized bone. Pretty unconventional, you say? On the western lawn, two giant bronze hands stick out of the ground as if seeking help. Not to be worried; the hands are actually a kids play structure by Toronto artist Luis Jacob christened “Jacob’s Ladder”. A rope net originally joined the two hands, emulating a sling shot game. Regrettably for the children but perhaps fortunately for instagrammers, the net has long been taken down and the structure now mostly serves as a selfie backdrop.
Berczy Park is a stone’s throw from Union Station and its subway and Go train/bus routes. While in the area, take a look at the Gooderham Building, St. Lawrence Market and St. Lawrence Hall.
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